Executive Briefing September 20, 2019


NPR Microsoft President: Democracy Is At Stake. Regulate Big Tech
Microsoft President Brad Smith argues that governments need to put some “guardrails” around engineers and the tech titans they serve. If public leaders don’t, he says, the Internet giants will cannibalize the very fabric of this country. “We need to work together; we need to work with governments to protect, frankly, something that is far more important than technology: democracy. It was here before us. It needs to be here and healthy after us,” Smith says.

Silicon Valley Business Journal Microsoft president wants greater regulation of the tech industry [Paywall]
A report on Brad Smith’s appearance at the Churchill Club and Computer History Museum event in Redwood City, California this past Monday.

The New York Times Microsoft’s President on Silicon Valley in the Cross Hairs
Andrew Ross Sorkin, DealBook editor and columnist for The New York Times, interviewed Mr. Smith at The Times’s first DealBook/DC Strategy Forum.


Morning Consult In Washington, Cracking Down on Big Tech Is Popular. In the Rest of U.S., Not So Much
…despite the growing focus on tech in the presidential race, the tech industry is not even in the top 10 on the list of industries that U.S. adults say presidential candidates should scrutinizing, according to a new Morning Consult/Advertising Week poll.

NBC McConnell changes position and backs $250 million for election security
In a surprise development, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his support on Thursday for additional money to bolster the country’s election system ahead of the 2020 vote, a move that counters his earlier position resisting calls for more funding.

ProPublica Report on Election Security Gains Attention, and a Sharp Rebuke
A Virginia cybersecurity company asserted many states were vulnerable to election system intrusions. Critics called the report flawed and questioned whether the company was looking to exploit legitimate anxiety about election security. In July, election officials across the country received a mass email from NormShield, a Virginia-based cybersecurity company few had heard of.

LA Times States try to combat election interference as Washington deadlocks
Even as other nations take aggressive action, some 40 election security bills in Congress have been left to fester. President Trump’s refusal to admit that Russia intervened in the election on his side, coupled with Republican unwillingness to contradict him, has blocked any congressional action. That leaves states to try to figure out piecework solutions — an effort that security experts say is inevitably too limited.

CNN Colorado becomes first state to ban barcodes for counting votes over security concerns
Citing security concerns, Colorado has become the first state to stop counting ballots with printed barcodes. The state’s secretary of state told CNN she felt it was a necessary step to ensure Colorado maintains its position as a national leader on election security. The decision is a further step toward prioritizing the role of human eye, rather than computers to count votes.

Engadget Snapchat releases political ad spending data ahead of 2020 election
Snapchat joins other social media giants in ramping up transparency efforts ahead of the 2020 US presidential election. The company has released a library of all the political and issue-based ad campaigns it has displayed on its app. The downloadable spreadsheets — for both 2018 and 2019 — includes detailed information on who paid for the ads and the demographic they aimed to target.

USA Today Alexa’s latest skill: Helping users donate to presidential candidates
“Starting next month, customers will be able to simply say, ‘Alexa, donate to [candidate name]’ to contribute up to $200 to any participating candidate’s campaign fundraising efforts,” Amazon announced on its company blog. The contributions via Alexa will begin in October, Amazon said. Beyond the contributions, the e-tailer said, it will offer neutral, unbiased, nonpartisan information about the candidates, available via voice requests.


Axios Internet Association pushes Congress to pass national privacy law
The web’s trade organization, the Internet Association, became the latest industry group to urge Congress to pass a national privacy law. Why it matters: Industry organizations, individual companies and consumer groups all say they want privacy legislation. They probably vary in what they would like to see in such legislation, but there could well be room for something that all could get behind. What they’re saying: “Passing comprehensive, federal privacy legislation in the 116th Congress is a top priority for the internet industry,” said IA president & CEO Michael Beckerman. “Internet companies stand ready with the broader business community to support unified, national privacy legislation.”

Roll Call With 5G in mind, senators plan big boost for Pentagon cybersecurity
Lawmakers are proposing to add more than half a billion dollars to the Pentagon’s 2020 budget for cybersecurity measures, in particular asking the department to include security features enabling its weapons and information systems to safely operate on future 5G worldwide wireless networks. Much of that future infrastructure is being developed by China and could become the global standard. Specifically, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week recommended adding $436 million to the Defense Department’s research and development budget for its “5G-XG” program that is intended to develop cybersecurity and other safeguards for future 5G communications.

The Hill Homeland Security chairman calls on new Trump aide to reestablish cyber coordinator
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is urging President Trump’s new national security adviser Robert O’Brien to prioritize reestablishing the White House cybersecurity coordinator position. The post was eliminated in 2018 following the departure of former Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce.

Washington Post Facebook, Google and Twitter face fresh heat from Congress on harmful online content
All three tech giants told lawmakers at the Wednesday hearing that they have made progress in combating dangerous posts, photos and videos — improvements they attributed largely to advancements in their artificial-intelligence tools. But some Democrats and Republicans in Congress still contend the companies haven’t acted aggressively enough.

Wall Street Journal Zuckerberg Meets With Trump, Faces Tough Questions From Senators
With his company under a regulatory spotlight, Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg scored a meeting at the White House with President Trump Thursday—but faced a chillier reception from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. … Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and White House social media director Dan Scavino also joined the meeting, a person familiar with the meeting said.

CNBC Mark Zuckerberg had dinner with senators to discuss looming tech regulations
Topics included “the role and responsibility of social media platforms in protecting our democracy, and what steps Congress should take to defend our elections, protect consumer data, and encourage competition in the social media space,” according to Warner’s spokesperson. Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been a leading figure in Congress championing legislation that would regulate the tech industry.

New York Magazine A 21st Century Breakup: Inside the divorce rattling Silicon Valley and Democratic politics
A long look at the changing relationships the Democratic Party and individual politicians and their campaigns have with Silicon Valley and other technology companies, focused specifically on Facebook and broadly on the industry as a whole.


The Gazette Microsoft to push Iowa’s rural broadband through partnership with Texas internet company
Microsoft announced plans to expand Iowa’s broadband coverage through a partnership with a Texas-based internet service provider as part of its Microsoft Airband Initiative. The initiative seeks to extend broadband access to more than 3 million underserved rural Americans by July 2022, the company said Wednesday morning in announcing its agreement with Nextlink Internet of Hudson Oaks, Texas.

MIT Technology Review A facial recognition ban is coming to the US, says an AI policy advisor
San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts, have outlawed certain uses of facial recognition technology, with Portland, Oregon, potentially soon to follow. That’s just the beginning, according to Mutale Nkonde, a Harvard fellow and AI policy advisor. That trend will soon spread to states, and there will eventually be a federal ban on some uses of the technology, she said at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference.

The Wall Street Journal World Catching Up With China on Surveillance Tech
China leads the world in facial-recognition and other new surveillance technologies, with its own government using the tools at home and Huawei Technologies Co. exporting them globally, according to a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But other countries are adopting similar technologies, according to the think tank’s report, which is based on research by a former State Department official in the Obama administration.

BBC Gatwick Airport commits to facial recognition tech at boarding
Gatwick has become the UK’s first airport to confirm it will use facial-recognition cameras on a permanent basis for ID checks before passengers board planes. It follows a self-boarding trial carried out in partnership with EasyJet last year. The London airport said the technology should reduce queuing times but travellers would still need to carry passports. Privacy campaigners are concerned.

TIME The Tech Innovations We Need to Happen if We’re Going to Survive Climate Change
In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy poured money into making practical a miraculous technology: the ability to convert sunlight into electricity. Solar energy was a pipe dream, far too expensive and unreliable to be considered a practical power source. But yesterday’s moon shot is today’s reality. The expense of solar power has fallen more quickly than expected, with installations costing about 80% less today than a decade ago.

Fortune Amazon Is Crowdsourcing Alexa’s Answers. Smart Tactic or a Questionable Move?
Did Albert Einstein wear socks? How do you prevent tears when cutting an onion? Did Burt Reynolds marry Sally Field? What makes wasabi green? The average person might not know the answer to these questions, but Amazon Alexa, through the new Alexa Answers portal that was announced Thursday, might. Well, more accurately, an Alexa user could. An online community where anyone who logs in can suggest answers to user-supplied questions posed to the voice-activated Alexa A.I. assistant, Alexa Answers is designed to answer the tough questions that can’t already be answered by the voice-enabled assistant.

Business Insider The selfie tool going viral for its weirdly specific captions is really designed to show how bigoted AI can be
A new viral tool that uses artificial intelligence to label people’s selfies is demonstrating just how weird and biased AI can be. The ImageNet Roulette site was shared widely on Twitter on Monday, and was created by AI Now Institute cofounder Kate Crawford and artist Trevor Paglen. The pair are examining the dangers of using datasets with ingrained biases — such as racial bias — to train AI. ImageNet Roulette’s AI was trained on ImageNet, a database compiled in 2009 of 14 million labelled images.

ProPublica Millions of Americans’ Medical Images and Data Are Available on the Internet. Anyone Can Take a Peek
Medical images and health data belonging to millions of Americans, including X-rays, MRIs and CT scans, are sitting unprotected on the internet and available to anyone with basic computer expertise. The records cover more than 5 million patients in the U.S. and millions more around the world. In some cases, a snoop could use free software programs — or just a typical web browser — to view the images and private data, an investigation by ProPublica and the German broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk found.

The Boston Globe The ascent of digital money
“How would you like to pay for that, sir?” For most of my lifetime, there have been three possible answers to that question: cash, a check, or a plastic card. Go to Beijing, however, and you will see very few payments in those forms. People pay with their phones, using digital payment systems created by the two biggest Chinese tech companies, Alibaba and Tencent. And not only in Beijing. For the Chinese way of paying is rapidly spreading around the world — from taxis in Tokyo to the Harvard gift shop in Cambridge, Ma.

Axios Immigration policy could handicap the U.S. in the AI talent race
AI experts are pushing the U.S. to ease immigration policies, arguing that the country is hobbling itself in a critical geopolitical race in which American dominance is slipping. The big picture: Two of the Trump administration’s major policy goals seem at cross purposes. Clamping down on immigrants and visitors could hamstring AI development in the U.S., which the White House says is a top priority. Why it matters: The U.S. has long been the clear leader in AI research, but in recent years China and Europe have made vast strides toward overtaking it. Falling behind could have major economic and military repercussions.

Business Insider Facebook outed a Ukrainian PR agency which spent $1.6 million on ads for fake accounts and pages
Facebook announced Monday that it has taken down hundreds of fake accounts, groups, and pages originating from Ukraine and Iraq. In a Facebook Newsroom post, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said that his team removed 244 accounts, 269 pages, 80 groups, and seven Instagram accounts that were linked to these two operations. “We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people. We’re taking down these Pages, Groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted.”

Bloomberg Apple Fights ‘Phantom’ Units Claim in $14 Billion EU Court Clash [Paywall]
Apple Inc. and Ireland’s court room clash with the European Commission finally lived up to its billing as the world’s biggest tax case. A two-day hearing into their appeal of the EU’s record 13 billion-euro ($14.4 billion) tax bill heated up on Wednesday as Apple rebutted claims that Irish units at the center of its fight are just “phantoms” and Ireland hit back at regulators for saying the country would willingly forgo one-fifth of its corporate tax takings. Ireland is the victim of “wholly unjustified criticism of its tax system and its approach” from the EU in “the biggest state aid case ever,” said Paul Gallagher, the government’s lawyer, in closing arguments of an EU General Court hearing in Luxembourg.


Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

  • Blog on Democratic presidential campaigns’ statements about tech companies: These ideas—that big tech companies deserve antitrust scrutiny, that we should pump the breaks on data-driven innovation, and that technological advances are bad for workers—are quickly becoming accepted wisdom across the political spectrum, as much among some of the conservative pundits on Fox News as among some of the Democratic hopefuls out on the campaign hustings. But progressives should rethink this strategy, because while bashing big tech may seem like a savvy appeal to popular sentiment, it will lead to bad outcomes for workers, consumers, and other progressive interests. (Innovation Files blog – Think Different: Why Progressives Should Stop Bashing ‘Big Tech’, September 16, 2019)

The Brookings Institution

  • Report on Cybersecurity and Trade: Trade and cybersecurity are increasingly intertwined. The expansion of the internet globally and use of data flows globally by businesses and consumers for communication, e-commerce, and as a source of access to information and innovation, is transforming international trade. The spread of artificial intelligence, the “internet of things,” and cloud computing will work to increase global connectivity of businesses, governments, and supply chains.As global interconnectivity grows, however, so does exposure to the risks and costs of cyberattacks. For example, formjacking—using JavaScript to steal credit card details from e-commerce sites—or supply chains hacks which exploit third party services and software to compromise a final target, undermine business and consumer trust in using the internet for commerce. (Brookings Research – Cybersecurity and digital trade: Getting it right, September 18, 2019)

The Belfer Center

  • Blog on Data and Security: In recent years, a number of authoritarian governments have begun taking data very seriously. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping believe that the twenty-first century belongs to nations that control communications platforms, suppress independent media, and dominate the development of data-driven technologies such as artificial intelligence. (Publications – How to Win the Battle Over Data, September 17, 2019)
  • Blog on Digital Currency: At the present time, transactions between foreign governments are cleared through and processed in U.S. dollars; therefore, as it stands, the international monetary system could not function without the dollar. This state of affairs may seem undoubtedly beneficial to the United States; however, there are potential negative ramifications to a dollar-dominant system. (Analysis & Opinions – What a Chinese Digital Currency Means for the Dollar’s Future, September 17, 2019)

Note: Voices for Innovation regularly shares a range of opinion articles and press releases from organizations in and publications covering tech policy. These pieces are meant to educate our audience, not to endorse specific platforms or bills.